Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for February 22nd, 2021

Texas Pays the Price of the Culture War

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Adam Serwer writes in the Atlantic:

SAN ANTONIO—The power gave out last Monday night. When we woke up on Tuesday morning, the temperature in the house was dipping below 50 degrees. We bundled our toddler in her warm jammies and tiny bubble coat. The gas and water were still on, so we huddled in front of the stove, boiling water for tea, hoping to raise the temperature a bit.

We were among the millions of Texans who lost power when a massive winter storm brought the temperature down to the single digits. In Houston, a woman and child accidentally suffocated themselves with carbon monoxide trying to stay warm in their car. Two people in Austin died in a fire that likely resulted from an attempt to stay warm. Here in San Antonio, a man in his 70s was found dead, apparently from exposure. Many Texans were without power, water, or both for days, left to choose between the risk of contracting COVID-19 at a shelter and the danger of freezing in their home.

I consider us fortunate. The second night, after the power went out again, we were sleeping with our daughter between us to make sure she stayed warm. We awoke to a soft roar, like the inside of a seashell, and realized that our pipes had burst and the nearby bathroom was filling with water. My wife woke up first and turned the water off before our home flooded. Our roof did not collapse. Our home did not catch fire and burn down, as nearby firefighters struggled with empty fire hydrants. We did not run out of food. We were lucky.

Nevertheless, as I stood in front of the heating element that morning, waiting for water to boil, I couldn’t help thinking: This is all so incredibly stupid.

The crisis in Texas was preceded by more than a decade of Republican control of state government, as politicians focused on culture-war grievances rather than the nuts and bolts of governance. After the near collapse of the power grid exposed its failures, the state’s political leadership attempted to cover for those failures by doubling down on those same grievances.

None of this had to happen. In the dry language of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Texas, which maintains its own grid to avoid federal regulation, was hit with a cold-weather event “unusually severe in terms of temperature, wind, and duration.” This forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, to resort to “system-wide rolling blackouts to prevent more widespread customer outages.” Unfortunately, “generators and natural gas producers suffered severe losses of capacity despite having received accurate forecasts of the storm.” ERCOT had reserves in anticipation of the storm, but those “reserves proved insufficient” once the cold hit. Many generators had “failed to adequately apply and institutionalize knowledge and recommendations from previous severe winter weather events, especially as to winterization of generation and plant auxiliary equipment.”

That description of the cascading failures of Texas’s power grid is not from the past week. It is actually taken from a 2011 report from FERC, investigating an outage during a prior cold snap. The report recommended that “all entities responsible for the reliability of the bulk power system in the Southwest prepare for the winter season with the same sense of urgency and priority as they prepare for the summer peak season.”

Texas officials didn’t feel like doing all that. As The Texas Tribune reports, the state legislature failed to act. Instead of imposing new regulations or mandates, ERCOT issued a set of voluntary “best practices.” Actually winterizing the entire system would have been expensive. The energy companies didn’t want to spend money they did not have to spend, and the politicians whose campaigns they finance didn’t want to make them do it either.

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas during the 2011 storm, recently told House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” It’s possible that the freezing cold and rolling blackouts in 2011 didn’t make more of an impact on Perry because he was in California at the time for an event honoring Ronald Reagan, setting himself up for a failed 2012 GOP primary run for president. (Perry was a bad debater and insufficiently callous toward undocumented immigrants.)

I doubt that “We’d freeze to death to own the libs” is a popular sentiment in Texas, but drawing that impression is easy if you’re outside the state, listening to its Republican officials.

As the journalist Brian Kahn noted on Twitter, when California was struggling with much smaller blackouts in late 2020, ambitious Texas Republicans were sneering at the state on social media. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said, “This is what happens when the Democrats are left in charge,” while Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced, “California’s politicians did this, not the heat.” U.S. Representative Dan Crenshaw joked, “Alexa, show me what happens when you let Democrats control energy policy.” And U.S. Senator Ted Cruz said that California “is now unable to perform even basic functions of civilization, like having reliable electricity.” Last week, Cruz jetted off to Cancún with his family while his constituents were burning their children’s toys for warmth.

Texas politicians were so interested in California’s struggles last year because California is an easy conservative shorthand for liberalism, and what ambitious Republicans have discerned from the success of Donald Trump is that the best way to attract conservative support is to show that they, too, enjoy it when liberals suffer. Texas has trended blue in recent years, but the Texas GOP remains ruthlessly competent at the work of winning elections even as it fails at governing. That absence of political competition breeds complacency.

Ideally in a democracy, when politicians govern poorly, the voters punish them for it. Real life is obviously more complicated, and politicians who fail at their duties aren’t held accountable for all sorts of reasons. But in the contemporary Republican Party, governance has taken a back seat to waging the culture war. Whether you are a . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2021 at 5:44 pm

Taiwan cauliflower and Shaoxing wine

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We did a shopping run and I got back to the supermarket with the Chinese veg. I got some Tung Ho, some Gai Pan Mue, some Shanghai bok choy mue, three long onions/Chinese leeks (look like giant scallions), and this head of Taiwan cauliflower. It’s not so evident in the photo unless you look closely, but the tiny florets, rather than being packed closely in a tight mass, are separate on tiny stalks, so it looks like cauliflower with bed hair. I can’t wait to cook it, probably with one of the long onions.

“Mue,” BTW, signifies a size smaller than “baby”: baby Shanghai bok choy (or baby regular bok choy) is small, but mue is smaller. If the bok choy were doing a dance in a Walt Disney animation, the “mue” would be the little guy at the end.

The Shaoxing wine is from a stop at the provincial liquor store. (There are also private liquor stores: a mixed alcohol ecosystem.) This is Pagoda 8 year old:

From the highest grade of the “Pagoda” Brand, Shaoxing Rice Wine has been selected as the drinking rice wine especially for the State Banquet by Zhong Nan Hai and the Great Hall since 1993.

I use it for cooking (a splash enhances soups, stews, and stir fries). It is pretty much equivalent to a sherry — an amontillado, say: fairly dry, with body.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2021 at 5:36 pm

The power of capitalism: Private equity ownership is killing people at nursing homes

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The power is not so much that capitalism kills people for the sake of profits (cf. Texas power grid, pollution from industry, the requirement for government laws to keep workplaces safe (and the endless efforts of corporations to repeal or evade those laws)), but that capitalism is able to continue the practice without encountering more effective opposition.

Dylan Scott reports in Vox:

When private equity firms acquire nursing homes, patients start to die more often, according to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Private equity acquisitions of nursing homes is a pressing topic: Total private equity investment in nursing homes exploded, going from $5 billion in 2000 to more than $100 billion in 2018. Many nursing homes have long been run on a for-profit basis. But private equity firms, which generally take on debt to buy a company and then put that debt on the newly acquired company’s books, have purchased a mix of large chains and independent facilities — making it easier to isolate the specific effect of private equity acquisitions, rather than just a profit motive, on patient welfare.

Researchers from Penn, NYU, and the University of Chicago studied Medicare data that covers more than 18,000 nursing home facilities, about 1,700 of which were bought by private equity from 2000 to 2017, the sample period they studied.

Their findings are sobering.

The researchers studied patients who stayed at a skilled nursing facility after an acute episode at a hospital, looking at deaths that fell within the 90-day period after they left the nursing home. They found that going to a private equity-owned nursing home increased mortality for patients by 10 percent against the overall average.

Or to put it another way: “This estimate implies about 20,150 Medicare lives lost due to [private equity] ownership of nursing homes during our sample period,” the authors — Atul Gupta, Sabrina Howell, Constantine Yannelis, and Abhinav Gupta — wrote. That’s more than 1,000 deaths every year, on average.

What accounts for such a significant loss of life when private equity takes over a nursing home? The researchers advance a few possible explanations.

For one, they note, the increased mortality is concentrated among patients who are relatively healthier. As counterintuitive as that may sound, there may be a good reason for it: Sicker patients have more regimented treatment that will be adhered to no matter who owns the facility, whereas healthier people may be more susceptible by the changes made under private equity ownership.

Those changes include a reduction in staffing, which prior research has found is the most important factor in quality of care. Overall staffing shrinks by 1.4 percent, the study found, but more directly, private equity acquisitions lead to cuts in the number of hours that front-line nurses spend per day providing basic services to patients. Those services, such as bed turning or infection prevention, aren’t medically intensive, but they can be critical to health outcomes.

“The loss of front-line staff is most problematic for older but relatively less sick patients, who drive the mortality result,” the authors wrote.

The study also detected a 50 percent increase in the use of antipsychotic drugs for nursing home patients under private equity, which may be intended to offset the loss in nursing hours. But that introduces its own problems for patients, because antipsychotics are known to be associated with higher mortality in elderly people.

The combination of fewer nurses and more antipsychotic drugs could explain a significant portion of the disconcerting mortality effect measured by the study. Private equity firms were also found to spend more money on things not related to patient care in order to make money — such as monitoring fees to medical alert companies owned by the same firm — which drains still more resources away from patients.

“These results, along with the decline in nurse availability, suggest a systematic shift in operating costs away from patient care,” the authors concluded.

The researchers make a point in their opening to stipulate that private equity may prove successful in other industries. But, they warn, it may be dangerous in health care, where the profit motive of private firms and the welfare of patients may not be aligned:

For example, patients cannot accurately assess provider quality, they typically do not pay for services directly, and a web of government agencies act as both payers and regulators. These features weaken the natural ability of a market to align firm incentives with consumer welfare and could mean that high-powered incentives to maximize profits have detrimental implications for consumer welfare. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2021 at 1:53 pm

Amazon Is Paying Employees to Quit Right Before Critical Union Vote

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Corporations are terrified that the people they employ might want not to be exploited and want to have a voice regarding their working conditions and salaries. Edward Ongweso, Jr., reports in Vice:

An annual program in which Amazon offers to pay workers at least $1,000 to quit their jobs could threaten a unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama.

On Sunday, there were concerns on Twitter that the drive was specifically targeted at the Bessemer warehouse, but Amazon runs this program nationally and has for several years. This year’s program, and internal documentation spelling it out, was first reported by labor reporter Kim Kelly. “We love that you’re part of the team. But if you have goals outside of Amazon, we want to support you,” a handout obtained by Kelly says. “That’s why we have a voluntary resignation program called ‘The Offer’ — an exit bonus starting at $1,000, based on how many Peaks you’ve worked.”

Regardless of its national scope, if workers in Bessemer who are supportive of the union take it, the drive there could be threatened.

“I researched and found out they do it at a lot of facilities and what not. But it was a good time to do it now in Bessemer. That could hurt the votes,” Michael Foster, one of the leaders of Bessemer’s union drive, told Motherboard. “If they quit the vote won’t count. To me it’s just to prevent the people from getting the union in. They need to thin out some people. It’s kind of a polite way to do it.”

The program is an annual one done each February. Bessemer’s warehouse opened in March so this is their first run-in with the buyout. The program is first mentioned in a 2014 letter to shareholders—then dubbed “Pay to Quit”—but, as the letter states, “invented by the clever people at Zappos” which was acquired by Amazon in 2009. It is now called “The Offer,” as it was at Zappos. In a 2008 essay reviewing the practice, Harvard Business Review framed the tactic as a way for Zappos to filter out those who “don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for.”

Amazon adopted a similar tune in its 2014 shareholder letter, saying that it made this offer to “encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want.” What really mattered, Amazon added, was that “an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.” To that end, Amazon offers $2,000 for one to two “peaks” at Amazon (employment on or before December 1), and an additional $1,000 for each year until you reach $5,000.

“Amazon has a number of different opportunities that are designed to help employees achieve their personal and professional goals,” an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard. “While we hope employees stay with and grow their careers at Amazon, this is a voluntary program that’s designed to provide extra support for those who decide that Amazon isn’t part of their long-term career plan, and it’s been offered every year since 2014.”

John Burgett, an Amazon worker in a Jeffersonville, Indiana warehouse who closely documented his experiences from 2014 to 2016, offered a different rationale for the program:

“It appears that Amazon accomplishes two goals with “The Offer.” It removes inveterate employees whom the company might consider a liability and an unnecessary expense so it can replace them with fresh new-hires at starting wage with no tenure regarding benefits. It saves the company money in stock payouts, 401k payouts, regular and overtime pay, vacation pay, VCP payments, other [sic] benefits. In this way, “The Offer” payout is quickly recovered, and what remains is all savings to the company.”

Even before “The Offer,” Amazon has gone to great lengths to deter workers that include, but are not limited to: . . ..

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2021 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Unions

After all, what’s the worst that could happen? (Answered)

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Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2021 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Daily life, Video

The foolishness of libertarianism writ large in the failure of the Texas power grid

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Libertarians promote the idea that the free market, if “unfettered” (their idea) by regulation, will efficiently address and solve problems that arise in society, thus obviating the “burden” (their idea) of government  intrusion.

Thus the Texas power grid was carefully constructed so that Federal regulations and requirements would not apply (the grid does not cross the state line), and thus in Texas (a power-rich state) the free market would provide all the regulation that the power grid requires.

We see how that worked out: utter failure and dozens dead and among the survivors some facing electricity bills for the past few days of thousands of dollars — one 63-year-old Army veteran living on Social Security faces a bill of $16,752, which will wipe out his savings.At least he lived. A Vietnam veteran died in his truck with his last tank of oxygen because he had no power.

But a Texas economist explained that those higher bills shows that the system is working: as the supply of electrical power dropped, the cost of power increased, and that’s good because (a) it encouraged people to cut back on usage, and (b) it encouraged power companies to provide more power. That in a nutshell is the libertarian argument — that market incentives will result in appropriate action — and though it seems logical, it fails in the face of experience. Not only did no more power become available, people who cut back received enormous bills or — for those who “cut back” because no power was provided to them — in some cases died as a result. While an economist might see the logic of the market as working, the public was penalized. (See this article.)

Indee, those free-market incentives are exactly what created the problem: the Federal government pointed out the need for winterizing equipment and power stations, based on the experience Texas had in 2011, but because Texas does not allow regulation, the government could not require that power companies take this step — and since taking the step would cut into profits, none of the companies did. Responding to the free market rather than to government regulation, they cut costs as much as possible so they could compete with other cost-cutting companies and rake in profits.

Regulations would have forced all companies to winterize (and thus kept the playing field level in terms of competition), but  libertarians don’t see a constructive role for government, and in Texas this sentiment meant that the government was powerless to do anything but make recommendations, and the power companies ignored the recommendations.

Now, I imagine, the power companies will say that “no one could have foreseen” such a cold snap — despite the obvious fact that it indeed was foreseen tot he extent that the government strongly recommended (and would have required, had Texas allowed such things) that companies be prepared for it.

Witnerization requirement:

In 2011, millions of Texans lost power during the Super Bowl, which was played in a Dallas suburb. Two agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, conducted a study on how Texas could “winterize” its energy infrastructure.

Of the 2011 storm, the report said generators and natural gas producers said they had “winterization procedures in place. However, the poor performance of many of these generating units and wells suggests that these procedures were either inadequate or were not adequately followed.”

But there was no broad move to winterize equipment. Since then, bills requiring energy producers to hold more power in reserve or ordering a study of how to better prepare for winter failed in the Republican-controlled Texas House.

Texas lawmakers deregulated the energy market in 2002. Supporters say this lowered energy prices statewide, but critics say it gave producers leeway to avoid

The system worked” – Libertarian logic applied to life

William W. Hogan, considered the architect of the Texas energy market design, said in an interview this past week that the high prices reflected the market performing as it was designed.

The rapid losses of power — more than a third of the state’s available electricity production was offline at one point — increased the risk that the entire system would collapse, causing prices to rise, said Mr. Hogan, a professor of global energy policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

“As you get closer and closer to the bare minimum, these prices get higher and higher, which is what you want,” Mr. Hogan said.

Storm deaths:

Harris County emergency officials reported “several carbon monoxide deaths” in or around Houston and reminded people not to operate cars or gasoline-powered generators indoors. Authorities said three young children and their grandmother, who were believed to be trying to keep warm, also died in a suburban Houston house fire early Tuesday. In Galveston, the medical examiner’s office requested a refrigerated truck to expand body storage, although County Judge Mark Henry said he didn’t know how many deaths there had been related to the weather.

Moving on:

Never have we been so happy to see the sun. After nearly a week of snow, ice and bitter cold, we were ready to move past the winter storms of last week.

By now, most of the ice is melted and the snow is gone. Power is being restored to the last few homes without it. Life is picking up.

Except life is not picking up for those who died as a result of the power failure. Their lives are over, cut off because Texas thinks government regulation is always bad.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2021 at 10:00 am

Love Bombs with Fine slant and Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave

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I believe that “Bombs” in the name of this shaving soap is a noun, rather than a verb (as in, say, “New Avengers Movie Bombs”), though certainly in some instances love does bomb, thus divorces. But here we are talking about explosions of affection, and specifically of a Phoenix Artisan CK-6 formula with this fragrance:

Dark Chocolate, Rose, Rosewood, Bergamot, Tea, Orange, Lemon, Black Pepper, Ginger, Palo Santo, Vetiver, Cedar, Tobacco & Rose Absolute.

The dark chocolate is present but somewhat submerged in the blend. Still, it’s a pleasant fragrance and with the CK-6 formula made a great lather.

I did use Grooming Dept pre-shave this morning, but tomorrow will switch back to MR GLO for a week for the comparison test. Despite the pre-shave, I did piick up a couple of nicks from the Fine slant, but that is on me (in both senses).

Three passes left my face totally smooth, and the combination of CK-6 and Grooming Dept pre-shave, my skin feels wonderful. A splash of Love Bombs — perhaps I should write “a stick of Love Bombs” — finished the shave, and the week begins on a pleasant note.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2021 at 8:50 am

Posted in Shaving

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